The Drunkard

*** Part One ***

Here’s how those storytelling dimwits begin the tale:

   He rode into town at sunset, just as prophecy had foretold. The folk feared to meet his cold stare as he reckoned the worth of their lives against the risking of his own, for he alone could deliver them from the ancient evil that had descended upon Entibar.

Pah.

Blah, blah, PAH.

First of all, there was no prophecy. Just some babble from old Plegar, who forgot more often than not to pull up his trousers before tottering into the hostel for breakfast. There was no impressive arrival, either. Near as I could figure, the drunkard staggered out of some tavern in Jendayi, passed out amongst sacks of goatswool in the back of my wagon, went overlooked at the border crossing from Calligar to Osterloh, and slept all the way to Entibar. That’s where I found him—just as I’d pulled the wagon alongside my humble mudbrick home—when I tossed a half-empty jug of cheap Calligari wine over the back of the wagon bench.

He yipped like a puppy over that little tap on the head.

“Who in all hells are you?” I demanded when he lurched to his knees. He answered by puking over the wagon’s side. By the look of his shirt and open longvest, he’d given the same answer numerous times before since his last visit to the laundry.

I drew the knife I kept secreted under the wagon bench, then climbed down the wheel. The knife wasn’t much, but I could stick him if I had to. Or run, despite my stiff back, and yell loud enough to rouse a warrior before the drunkard caught up. I lived outside town, but there was a watchpost over the hill. Someone would hear me if I made an effort.

The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I assumed there were eyes behind the ropes of dark hair slung over his face.

“Gimme a drink,” he slurred, his voice raw from retching. “Gimme a drink, old man.”

I’m older, not old, so I kicked a cloud of dust at him—an insult that said I’d rather bury him than look at him. “Your last drink is in the dirt, dunghead. Scrape it up and take it with you.”

He pushed his hair back to reveal bloodshot eyes amidst circles of bruises. Someone had given him the what-for with both fists. Probably someone familiar with his fine deportment and sweet discourse.

“You’re not… Where am I?”

“In my wagon, dunghead.”

“But I’m supposed to be…” He stared at his shaking hands. Without another word for me, he snatched up my wine jug like a dying man who’d found the elixir of immortality. I gaped as he gulped. I’d never seen a man so frantic for wine.

“More,” he croaked when he’d drained the last.

“This isn’t a hostel,” I snapped back. “And I’m no hoskeep looking to please a customer.”

“You don’t want to see me sober, old man.”

“I don’t want to see you at all.”

The drunkard swayed from the wagon’s edge far enough to reveal what I’d not noticed before. A very long dagger, like those worn by Calligari warriors for the sort of up-close fighting Osters like me had nightmares about. There was peace between Calligar and Osterloh now, but it was still new and not universally favored.

And I’d thought to poke him with my knife, which now seemed as menacing as straw. Limp straw. My late wife always told me my temper would escort me to my grave.

He jerked his longvest over the dagger as if I’d forget it if I couldn’t see it. “Don’t run,” he said. “Just gimme the drink, I’ll be gone.”

“I’ll get to the watchpost and bring back warriors before you can blink. Sober warriors.”

“Don’t. Run.”

I ran, forgetting to yell. Behind me I heard the clatter of my wagon’s gate, then a solid thud. I rounded my home’s corner and fell against the wall, sucking air through clenched teeth. My back was in worse shape than I thought.

All I heard was the rustling of tamarisk trees. Unless the Calligari was traipsing tippy-toe over the gritty earth, he wasn’t pursuing me. I tightened my hold on the knife and peeked around the corner.

That drunken Calligari was sprawled face down in the dirt. The wagon gate hung open above him. I’d been meaning to fix the latch for a month, and decided the gods loved me enough to have made me procrastinate. If they loved me more, the Calligari had broken his neck. I squinted, counted to twenty, and never once saw him twitch.

I whispered, “Deliver me from malice and dishonor,” then kissed my knife’s blade as I’d been taught decades ago, during the few months I’d trained as a warrior. A fighter’s life hadn’t agreed with me then, and my present aversion remained quite hale.

Once I convinced my back it wouldn’t hurt any worse if I moved than it did standing still, I faced my wagon. Goatswool wasn’t a tempting prize for thieves, but silver was stashed amongst the wool, and those coins were necessary to keep me in the apothecary’s good graces. My back wasn’t getting better, and I suspected my knees would soon vie for attention. Without a medicinal or two, my trading days were finished, as well as my ability to meet other obligations.

So I determined to summon the watch after my silver was stashed elsewhere. No sense in encouraging questions I didn’t wish to answer. I hadn’t spent fourteen years guarding my nearly-licit trade dealings to have them spoiled by a drunkard.

Up close, he looked near enough to dead to be of no concern. Knife set on the wagon bench, I crept past him and hauled my aching self up the wheel. I’d be lucky if my back didn’t cinch up in mid-reach. Fortunately, I never had to endure such torment. Unfortunately, deliverance came on the edge of the dagger that suddenly appeared between my arm and ribs.

“No time left,” the Calligari said, his accent hardening. “Do you have another jug?”

A dozen answers of good wit came to mind, but none were so sharp as that dagger, so I merely sighed. “Two, to be precise. Beer.”

He withdrew the dagger without so much as snagging my sleeve. “Fetch it.”

“My donkeys—”

“Won’t die out here. Keep wasting time, and we will.”

Oh, lovely. I’d trundled home a drunkard bent on killing himself and present company if I couldn’t keep him soused. I eased down from the wheel and faced my captor. He stank of sweat, mildew, and his recent digestive troubles. No squint-lines framed his blackened eyes, which bleakened my outlook for the future. Calligari warriors were half-crazy by nature, and this one had the aid of fermentation and youth to bolster his madness. I thought one last time of racing for the watchpost, my aching back be damned. But he kept his dagger ready, and running with a blade skewering my thigh would likely prove beyond my abilities.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered.

“On that we agree.”

He flinched, then bared his teeth as if angry I’d had the audacity to overhear him. “I can’t fight the demons today.”

I snorted, and hobbled toward my home. “No doubt your ‘demons’ are more terrible than anyone else’s troubles.”

“Pray gods you never find out.”

I found myself abruptly and utterly lacking in curiosity, and opted against begging divine intervention. Since the gods had proved fickle with their favor, I’d be more particular with my prayers.

***

I am not a difficult man to abide, yet there are certain behaviors I find intolerable. Farting in the midst of breakfast is one. Fleeing one’s moral obligations is another. Tying me to a chair so you may guzzle my beer and pass out in my bed certainly garners my disgust.

The Calligari had acted rather responsibly before the beer got the better of him. My donkeys had been stabled and fed, sacks of goatswool were piled against the wall behind me, and the bag of silver sat on my table unopened. His disinterest in the coin unnerved me. I understood the reasoning of a thief far better than the logic of a drunkard.

Before passing out, he’d stoked my brazier so I needn’t freeze in captivity. In the dim light, I counted spiderwebs that had appeared in my absence (only five), calculated the number of mudbricks that made up my home (one hundred forty four thousand, give or take), and anticipated what price I’d demand for the goatswool (not much, since such Calligari goods were no longer contraband).

I also discovered the Calligari, whose feet hung over the end of my bed, had holes in the soles of his boots. Calligari warriors never traveled afoot. They were worse than their Oster counterparts, and Oster warriors acted as if their asses were fixed to the saddle. So either my Calligari wasn’t a warrior—quite unlikely—or I’d found a man fleeing his own countrymen without a whit of aid.

That offered possibilities. A decent reward might be forthcoming, and a mite of respect from the folk of Entibar who found pleasure in mocking the widower tradesman living outside their walls. A lack of suspicion about where said tradesman acquired coin enough to ensure the apothecary’s services for a full year.

But I wouldn’t wish to be found tied to a chair, breathing air fouled by a drunkard, and in dire need of relieving myself.

At last the Calligari awoke with a start, followed by a groan. He dropped his feet to the floor and sat up only far enough to hang his head over his knees. He squinted at me as if the dim glow of the brazier’s coals pained his eyes.

“You’re awake,” he mumbled.

So very astute, my drunkard.

He groped for the jug beside the bed and was soon soaking his stomach. Two swallows, a pause for breath, then another mouthful before he lowered the jug. He shuddered so hard, I thought I’d soon see the beer again.

“Tastes like goat piss,” he rasped.

“A Calligari would know.”

“An Oster wouldn’t know the difference.”

Then he leveled his stare at me. Eyes are not at all windows to the soul, but can be fair indicators of sanity. I didn’t much like what the Calligari’s eyes told me, so I declined to exchange further insults even though a choice one came readily to mind.

He tired of staring at me not a moment too soon. A solitary tradesman must possess a certain amount of nerve, but it was difficult to display bravery when one desperately needed to visit the privy.

“I got the wrong wagon,” he mumbled. “Where in Osterloh am I?”

“Entibar.” A single hard glance caused me to add, “A half-day’s ride from the border.”

“Could I reach it by morning?”

“I doubt there’s enough night left.”

He cussed as he staggered to the door, jug in hand. The first wafting of fresh air felt like a lover’s sweet lips against my skin. I heard the holed soles of his boots crunch over the dirt, and the sharp curse that came just before a muffled thump. I hoped he’d passed out again but, alas, he came stumbling inside, brushing fresh dirt from his hip, and flung the door shut.

“I’ll leave tonight,” he said. “I’ll take as little as I can, but some things I must have.”

I rattled off the scant inventory of my shelves as quickly as I could to demonstrate my willingness to forgo his company. He winced and waved me to silence.

“The beer, Oster. Where’s the other jug?”

“The… other jug?”

“You said there were two.” He lifted the one he held. “Where’s the other?”

I squirmed, and glanced over my shoulder. “That is the other.”

His gaze followed mine to the room’s corner, where shards of crockery littered the floor. His wide-eyed surprise became pale-cheeked fear, then turned into scowling rage. Angry people where a nuisance. Folks terrified and angry were dangerous.

He crossed the room in two strides, his spittle hitting my cheek as he shouted, “You ignorant shit, I needed that drink!”

You did it,” I dared to say. “You drank it dry, you got angry, you threw it at me and missed.”

He had, in fact, thrown it so hard, shards had pinged the back of my chair. But I kept that detail to myself and watched the chapped knuckles of the Calligari’s fists. I also noticed the chafing around his wrists—an interesting fact to accompany the holes in his boots.

“Did I say anything?” he asked softly.

I swallowed. “Specifically…?”

“Anything… strange?”

I looked at that drunkard’s face, made childlike with doubt, and heard in my answer the spitefulness of my father. “You tie me up in my own home and promise to kill me because you want to drink my beer–and you expect me to judge what you might consider strange?”

A man more vain than I would claim to have spoken with courage or, at the least, calculation. A humble man such as myself would admit there was no thought at all. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to piss myself. I couldn’t say which avoidance was more vital.

He retreated a clumsy step. His breath caught when he sloshed the jug. Two-thirds empty, I guessed.

“Not enough,” he whispered. “Nowhere near.”

He set the jug aside and drew his dagger, then grabbed hold of what little hair the gods had left me and forced my head back. The flat of his dagger pressed against my throat. He bent close, rudely forcing me to inhale his sour breath.

“Get me more drink.”

“I’d have to go to town,” I strained to say.

We, old man. You’re not leaving my sight, you’re not telling anyone who I am. If you even look like you want to betray me, I’ll bash your teeth through the top of your skull.”

I puzzled over that threat, wondering if he’d misplaced a pronoun, before the increased pressure of his dagger reminded me his grammar mattered little. “I’ll do it.”

I slumped when he released me, and tried to find enough spit to wash down the bile while the Calligari untied me. When my arms came free, I pulled them forward to ease the cramps in my back. Breathlessly, I expressed my most urgent need.

“Don’t run,” he said.

I managed to laugh—almost—as I planted my feet and tried to stand. I nearly collapsed, but the Calligari caught me under the elbows and eased me upright. Little as I wanted him to touch me, I feared I’d topple over if he let go. I shuffled to the door with his help and not a whit of shame. Even a younger man would be unsteady after such an ordeal.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled as we stepped outside, into the chalky pre-dawn light. “I won’t do that again.”

I didn’t ask which “that” he meant, figuring I’d toss his promise in his face no matter which of his horrid habits he repeated.

“I’ll be out of your life tonight.”

“No need,” I grumbled, “to apologize for that.”

His laughter was sharp, hard and short. “I suppose not.”

Once I concluded my business in the privy and stretched out my back, I stepped into the fresh air of dawn to find the Calligari propped against my olive tree, jug in hand. Since I’d agreed to play the lackey to his vice, I had an obligation to explain the dangers of our endeavor—particularly since my life depended upon our success.

“How will I explain you?” I asked.

“Why would you?”

“I’ve lived here nigh twenty years, and spent thirty-odd years before that in Entibar itself. It’s a town, not a city. Strangers never pass through in my company. Curiosity will be unavoidable.”

He scowled. “Make something up.”

“I lie poorly,” I said convincingly.

“Make it work!” he barked, then winced. I wondered if I could make enough noise to incapacitate him. “You’ve kin in Entibar, yes? Someone you care about?”

I crossed my arms. “Not particularly.”

“But… But if something happens to me, everyone in Entibar dies.”

“You are so valuable, Calligar would wage war on your behalf?”

He paused. “Yes. That’s right.”

Poor tactic, lying to a man who’d survived the intricacies of covert commerce, through war and reconciliation, by knowing the difference between a threat and a bluff. While I had no doubt he’d kill me if I protested overly much, my Calligari was no more dear to his countrymen than the goatswool smelling up my home. Chafed wrists, holey boots.

“Why can’t you—” He turned away, nearly smacking into the tree, then hooked his arm around the trunk as if seeking solidity. “I’m not asking to infiltrate the High Strongholds of Osterloh. By Great Dhuvaki, all I need is the drink.”

I rolled my eyes at his invocation. Calligar worshipped a whole pack of gods, and put a name and patronage to each one. We Osters are less arrogant in our faith, assuming They haven’t the need nor inclination to share names and duties with us. Besides, I understood Calligari theology well enough to know Dhuvaki was no patron of drunkards.

“‘Make it work,’ he says,” I muttered, then noticed his tensing shoulders. While he’d permit me leeway to argue with him, mockery was beyond his indulgence—an important delineation if I hoped to navigate his graces. “To begin, your appearance is a tad… rough.”

“Then fetch me a comb.”

“You’ll need more than that. A washing of hair, a bit of—”

“I can’t wait that long!” He cradled the jug to his chest, his dagger sticking out from his fist like some lonely plume on an otherwise plucked fowl. The contrast between his ridiculous pose and earnest tone disturbed me greatly. Despite moments of lucidity, the Calligari was quite lunatic.

“If I’m not soon sloshing drunk,” he said, “I’ll give everyone else a merciful death and leave you to be the plaything. It’ll happen, old man, just a matter of time. You don’t want me here when it does.”

   Deranged might be more accurate. My thoughts groped through the dark tales littles tell to frighten each other: women who grow fangs in a handful of heartbeats, shrieking men who eat lost children, demons that look human until their victims meet death at the tips of fiery claws and barbed tongues. I shivered at how my foolish imagination made the Calligari’s face seem to stretch and darken, his eyes take on a sheen of scarlet for just an eyeblink—

No. What I had before me was naught but a man nigh ruined by drink, who desired above all else to finish the task. Indeed he possessed an unshakeable determination—an admirable trait, if one dismissed the purpose.

“The town’s gates won’t open before midmorn,” I said reasonably. “A handshake with a washing cloth won’t take that long.”

Unbelievably, the Calligari looked worse after his slipshod grooming. His longvest was fastened from neck to hem to hide his stained shirt, except where three clasps were missing. No dirt obscured his bruises and scrapes, no stubble gave depth to his jawline nor color to his waxy cheeks. With his long hair pulled back, he looked scarcely old enough to have left his mother behind. But I knew the adage about appearances and deception. That young drunkard was a killer awaiting the right twitch. Or the wrong one. Matter of perspective, I suppose.

And he still smelled like a drunkard, fancy that.

“I’ll do the thinking,” I said when he demanded we jog off to Entibar immediately.  “You told me to make something up. You told me to make it work.”

“Don’t. Shout. Gods, please stop.” He pressed his hand atop his head as if fearing his brains would simmer out. I could have told him I’d never be so fortunate. “I’m running out of time.”

“Then hustle the goatswool into the wagon.” I pantomimed tossing a heavy sack.

“What in damnation are you talking about?”

“Don’t shout. You’ll hurt yourself.”

He scowled. “You stupid—”

“Stupid enough to hire a poor Calligari to guard my goods and self, yes? To buy him a drink to soothe his throat while I haggle over goatswool, and even stupid enough to trundle him home when I’m done.” I paused. He stared, brows lowered and mouth agape. “Did I speak too quickly, or is the concept too large for you to grasp all at once?”

He snapped his mouth shut. “You said you didn’t lie well.”

“But I do have a passing good talent for spinning small tales when the need arises.”

He put his hands on his hips, his little finger tapping the dagger’s hilt as if he thought I’d forgotten it. “I don’t have another choice. Get moving.”

Poets would expound at length on the beauty of that morn: the sky a blemishless dome of cerulean blue, the sun a white-gold disk lifting above the low hills, amber grasses all a-shiver in the breeze, quail taking flight over acacia trees like earnest prayers seeking amiable gods.

Me, I looked at those plump birds and considered how tasty one would be, rubbed with olive oil and salt, then crisped over the coals. But my Calligari didn’t give a moment’s heed to breakfast. He even sneered when I reminded him we’d skipped supper the night before. By the time I got my grumpy donkeys in the traces—they didn’t get breakfast either—the Calligari had loaded the goatswool. He hadn’t complained, but judging from his groans and belches, his belly and head were troubling him. He should have had breakfast.

“Got this, too.” He set my sack of silver on the wagon bench.

I swallowed quickly and hard. “Why?”

“The drink.” He clambered up the wagon wheel none too gracefully, lugging the jug, and eased onto the bench. “Figured you’d pay for it, unless you’re also not a thief who’d passing good at finding things before they’re lost.”

“I am not a thief.” Of all that I am, have been, or will be—never that.

He didn’t even care I’d answered. His hands shook as he pulled the cork from the jug, and he arched his neck to drain the dregs. Since he seemed disinclined to chat, I silently climbed up beside him. I took two silvers from the sack, then stashed the rest as far under the wagon bench as I could cram it.

We rode to Entibar through sloping fields were my father’s goats had once grazed. I’d known from an early age that such a life wouldn’t agree with me. But since none of my siblings had survived, the land had become mine. The gods must have suffered a pique of mercy that day, dragging my father to the afterlife, else the old man’s ghost would have gleefully haunted me into insanity.

So the land was mine, but not the herds, needed as they’d been to pay off debts and fines, so nothing but wild things roamed there. I’d sworn no child of mine would face a grief that had nothing to do with a father’s death and everything to do with how he’d spent his life. Now I lived alone, and it suited me most times.

“What’s up there?”

I jumped at the Calligari’s question, so lost in thought I’d managed to forget, for a blessed moment, I was hostage to a crazy drunkard. I glanced the direction he pointed. “Juniper trees.”

“They’re pretty.”

I snorted and gave the reins a sharp snap to encourage the donkeys to move from a trudge to a plod. “Did you never notice the junipers in Calligar?”

“It would be nice,” he said softly, “to do nothing but rest in their shade and listen to the day.”

With a harder snap, I convinced the donkeys to amble with greater vigor. Hopefully the Calligari would lose interest in my junipers.

   The Calligari, the Calligari, the Calligari… “What’s your name?”

He paused. “Azim.”

“Well, Azim—”

“No, gentler. A-sim.”

Quite particular, my drunkard. “Well, Asim, I’m Neb.”

“Just Neb?”

“That’s plenty between us, don’t you think, Just Asim?”

He made an ugly noise in his throat, crossed his arms, and slumped as far from me as he could like a petulant child. I flexed my elbows to show him how sincerely I appreciated the open space.

   Neb… my love…

The whisper drifted from behind me. I whipped my head around, ignoring my back’s protests, and searched the empty landscape. I wanted to hear her, to see her again.

“What’s wrong?” Asim asked, and what could I tell him? That I’d heard my wife calling me, and forgotten in an instant that she was ten years dead?

“Nothing.” I turned around and stroked the back of my neck to smooth a shiver.

“You heard something.”

“Bugs.”

But I didn’t relax until he quit scanning the land behind and settled back into his slump. When he pressed fingers over his eyes, I chanced a quick look at my hilltop grove of junipers. Sunlight and shadows played a nasty trick, seeming to create and absorb Shamara’s ample form atop the rise, reaching out to me before fading in a blink.

   Where is he, Neb? Why hasn’t our son come home?

I rubbed my ear to rid it of the lament Shamara had spoken for the last months of her life. And here the drunkard thought himself the only one haunted by his past.

*** Part Two ***

The town of my birth hadn’t changed much over the years. The same stone wall—a respectable twelve feet high—still encircled the same patchwork of mudbrick buildings and slim lanes. The gates were only half-open, as befitted the unseemly hour of our arrival. Not another wagon nor rider nor traveler afoot was in sight. Just one more thing Asim expected me to justify to whomever asked.

But first I must admit an uncomfortable truth: I’d begun to look forward to our deception. To feel a smidgeon of excitement, even. My dealings with brokers in Osterloh and Calligar had been so long predictable, I rarely needed to spare a thought remembering who I was supposed to be to whom. Now, I’d have to play myself while doing something I wouldn’t do. I won’t say I felt younger or livelier, but I will admit the intensity of my thoughts left little room for fretting over my aching back.

Eyes shaded, Asim peered ahead as a warrior took position at Entibar’s gate and watched our approach. His hand gripped the wagon bench so tightly, I thought his fingers would splinter the wood.

“Ease off,” I grumbled. “If I’d managed to slip away last night long enough to direct an ambush, do you think I’d have come back and tied myself up just for the pleasure of greeting you this morn?”

He glared at me. “Don’t tell anyone I’m from Calligar.”

“I wouldn’t advise a sober man to attempt that deception. You even groan with a Calligari accent.”

Sighing, he gnawed his thumbnail, then asked, “That’s the main gate? Are there others?”

“Yes, and one. It’s on the river side.”

“What river?”

That river.”

Which river? The same one that cuts through western Calligar?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like boats.”

“Nor maps, I guess.”

“My, you’d almost turned civil, speaking in coherent sentences and all.”

“There wasn’t enough beer.”

The warrior at the gate was known to me, of course. I’d found occasion to pass time with each of the twenty-seven warriors bunking in and around Entibar, learning their interests and inclinations. It behooved a trader such as myself to gather and store interesting information.

“Good morn, Sen Tirsala,” I said as my donkeys paused at the gates. Sometimes, when she had finished a heavy meal topped off with a few drinks, friends could call her Titi and expect her to laugh. But when she was working her post, nothing less than the formal address of rank and name pleased her. Besides, she hadn’t stepped aside to let me pass.

“Morn, Neb,” she said as she finished knotting the tails of her hair linens at the nape of her neck. “You’re early on the road. Just back?”

“Just so, and not even enough at home for a slim breakfast.” At least she’d ignored my companion, which was only polite since they hadn’t been introduced. If I could get Asim inside the city, keep him distracted until the timing was right… “My guest isn’t accustomed to fasting, so I thought we’d get an early start on the day.”

She gave Asim a cursory glance. “You needn’t hire strangers, Neb. If your lands are becoming too much for you, there are folks aplenty right here who’d welcome the work.”

I’d not have it said I’d grown feeble. “He’s for appearances only, Sen. Some Calligari renegades have it in their heads to harass honest traders on the roads between—”

Her hand went to her sword’s hilt. “On which side of the border did you hire him?”

“Told you they’d be jumpy,” I said to Asim.

“Answer me, Neb.”

“Yes, Sen, he’s Calligari, but clumsy and slow-witted, aren’t you, Asim? I only hired him to keep the bandits from thinking me easy prey.”

She drew her sword, but was polite enough to point it at the ground. “I’ll take his weapons, just the same. Or,” she continued when Asim opened his mouth, “he can keep me company in the gatehouse. No armed Calligari is going to pass on my watch.”

Before Asim could find his voice, I nudged his ribs and waved to the gatehouse window above. The pair of warriors watching us waved back. Asim understood. He fumbled his dagger from its sheath and held it out to Tirsala. That, and the whiff she got of him, must have convinced her of his relative harmlessness. She opened the gate.

“I’m nearly sober,” he whispered as we entered Entibar.

“Not that again. You’re beginning to sound like the chorus of a lamenting epic.” He must be driven to drunkenness because sobriety made of him an unbearable bore. “You’ll soon be quaffing drink strong enough to knock you on your ass before you can belch.”

“Promise?”

The corners of his mouth quirked as if he might smile, so I figured I might as well grin. So easy, manipulating an idiot. “I told you I’d bring you to town and secure your inebriation. Ask anyone in Entibar, they’ll tell you Neb keeps his word.”

I let the donkeys dawdle their way up the lane, and even waved to the folks sweeping front steps and rolling up window mats. Asim twitched and fidgeted. The longer I made him wait, the more quickly he’d guzzle, and the safer I’d be when the time came to point him out to a warrior.

We arrived at the Mourner’s Inn—a jolly establishment that offered strong drink, edible meals, and a not completely unpleasant shelter from the elements. It had, during the worst winter incursion of Calligari warriors, served as a place to store bodies until kin laid claim to them. Now, there were some patrons who kept that memory fresh by spending hours slouched motionless in the dim corners. Its ambiance agreed with me, though the meat pies did not.

I set the wagon brake and tossed a clipped coin to one of the youths standing under the once-red awning. “No less attention than usual, Bit, and not a peek more.”

Bit gave a sharp nod and climbed onto the wagon’s back wheel to play sentry. The Mourner’s patrons were vaguely trustworthy, but I didn’t need a just-curious question about the hidden silver. What none found, none could question.

“Come along, Asim, deliverance awaits.”

Eager Asim had sense enough to hesitate when Kiz and Riah filled the doorway. The pair—sister and brother, no older than I guessed Asim to be—needed no pointy things to intimidate a stranger. Not that they didn’t appreciate a weapon’s worth, mind. I recognized the delicate-seeming ornament Kiz wore at her bosom as the hilt of a lovely steel spike as long as a man’s hand, wrist to fingertip. How she avoided impaling herself when she sat down was a marvel.

“Be kind, he’s with me,” I said of Asim. I patted his shoulder and pretended he didn’t flinch.

Kiz and Riah stepped aside to let us into the common room, where enough light seeped in to keep one from knocking into others, but not so much one must admit recognizing them. The conversational drone went on with nary a dip. Not even Bila, presiding over his establishment from behind the serving boards, gave my arrival much notice. Reassuring, to be among familiars. I much anticipated their reaction to Asim’s Calligari chatter, and handing him over to the warriors would earn the Mourner’s Inn a bit of enforcement leeway for months. Such was the way of intangible commerce in Entibar.

Sweat shone on poor Asim’s brow, and his gaze darted about as if trying to track every movement. He was near the breaking point. I pointed him toward a table scarcely taller and wider than the stools tucked beneath it. The table farthest from the door.

But before I could signal Bila for a flagon of his clearest distillation, another man caught my gaze. His gray hair had grown considerably longer, his face had gained deeper creases around the mouth, but the eyes were the same—deep brown and wide, an illusion of softness that hid his cunning. Sijhal wasn’t supposed to be here. He was supposed to be in Calligar, where I paid him to be. That Sijhal was here meant… things I didn’t want to know.

I waved Asim on ahead of me. Somehow I sat across from Sijhal without betraying the flustered hens roosting in my gut. I waited, the icon of patience, until Sijhal worked up the nerve to speak.

“Back still troubling you, Neb?”

I shrugged. “Shoulder still bothering you?”

He shrugged, but only on the left side. “There’s no easy way to say this, so… I lost the trail.”

“You lost—!” I checked my anger and lowered my voice. “Seven years you’ve been running around Calligar, living off my coin, and now you reveal you’re as fit for the task as a sack of buzzard shit?”

“Seven years when no one listed to you but me.”

“I paid you well enough, so don’t tell me you did it out of charity.”

That, at least, made him drop his gaze. “It’d take more years than you and I have left to convince you of that.”

Far more, I almost said, before Kiz sidled up to the table.

“Who’s your handsome friend, Neb?”

I stared at Sijhal—handsome enough, I suppose, if a woman liked her men creased and gangly—but Kiz knew perfectly well who he was.

“Nervous sort, is he?” she went on. “Afraid someone else will strike the targets around his eyes?”

Ah, my Calligari. He did indeed look unstrung, wringing his hands as though hoping to remove the skin, his leg bouncing so hard it nearly upset the table. As for handsome? Maybe in a dim light, if one squinted and was forgiving. Kiz had peculiar tastes. I took a silver from my purse and put it in her hand. “Favor, Kiz? Get my hired man some of Bila’s best. Asim is a bit spindly on manners, but he means no harm.”

Kiz held the coin between her knuckles. “That’ll buy a lot of Bila’s best.”

“Asim may have as much as he likes. Might be amusing to watch him try to match you drink for drink. My treat.”

She laughed, and rubbed my bald spot in the mistaken notion I thought the show of affection sweet. Had her brother Riah not been so near, I would have pinched her wide bottom and feigned equal ignorance of her preferences. Instead, I spared a smile for Asim we both knew was false then gave Sijhal my attention. I couldn’t call in the warriors until—

“Explain,” I said, “how you lost my boy.”

Sijhal wouldn’t look at me. “It’s been fourteen years. He isn’t a boy anymore.”

Explain.”

“I had evidence,” he said after a sigh, “that he’d passed from the Okpara tribe to the Leb. So I tracked their factions, and finally caught rumor of an Oster riding with a band of nomads. I found the nomads…” He lifted one hand, then let it fall. “He wasn’t there, Neb. I asked as much as I dared, enough to nearly get my nose clipped, but he wasn’t there.”

I stared at his motionless hand, taking some small satisfaction in the missing thumb. He’d nearly broken my back in that brawl, but I’d done my share in return. Neither of us were much for brawling these days, and the sweet object of our fight had returned to my arms—not his. And she and I had been blessed with a son we so dearly loved. Where is he? I heard Shamara moan, as clearly as if she still kept vigil atop the hill, among the junipers.

“How much?” I asked. “How much coin will it take—”

A hand gripped my shoulder. Another pinned my wrist to the table when I made move to strike the offender. I jerked my head around to discover Riah bending close, his face so near mine I could count the ample hairs of his eyebrows were I so inclined.

“You didn’t say,” Riah growled, “your hired man was Calligari.”

I huffed my shoulder beneath his hand. “He’s harmless. Let him get drunk. He’s more agreeable that way.”

“He’s got his eyes all over Kiz.”

I peered past his bulky arm to spy my Calligari. Certain enough, Asim was staring at the woman’s bosom. I deemed it unwise to inform Riah it was likely the weapon, not the breasts, that held his attention. Equally certain was the presence of Kiz’s hand on Asim’s thigh. I thought it unwise to mention that as well.

What cheered me was the row of tiny potshards on the table between them. They’d each downed three tots already. Poor Kiz never learned. After that much more of Bila’s best, Asim wouldn’t very well be able to use what her hand kept creeping toward.

“Well,” I said slowly, “I don’t think Kiz minds if—”

“I mind.” And to demonstrate his brotherly attentiveness, he squeezed my wrist awfully hard.

“I’ll address the matter directly.”

Riah let go and straightened. I rubbed my wrist and stood up. We both looked toward Asim, and Asim chose to look at me and the angry brother who was flexing his fists. An utter disaster of timing.

“I’m keeping my word,” I blurted when Asim shoved to his feet. “Riah just expressed—”

“Do you?” Asim asked too loudly. Bila’s best worked quickly. “Keep your word?”

“Don’t I, Kiz?”

“Sure, Neb. And Riah can mind his own cares.”

Riah puffed out his chest. “Maybe if you minded yours—”

“Oh, leave off,” Kiz said.

“Not again,” Bila grumbled. “Ought to throw the pair out on their sibling asses.

“There is no problem,” I shouted before anyone else could say anything. “Riah, I vouch for Asim. Kiz, quit baiting Riah. Asim, just… get drunk and don’t make a spectacle of it.”

The Mourner’s Inn went as quiet as corpses. “Who tapped him for command?” someone muttered, and someone else chuckled. I ignored them and watched Asim. No doubt the drink was telling him he knew more than I did. Drunkards believe themselves omniscient.

“You promised,” Asim said, “to get me drunk.”

More tittering from the onlookers.

I nodded. “You’re well on your way.”

“You never promised to bring me back.”

“Back where?”

“You tried to trick me!”

“No!” Well, yes, but—

“Stupid old man, you’ll get us all killed!”

And if that wasn’t enough to put the Mourner’s in a frenzy, Asim overturned the table, grabbed for Kiz’s bosom, and yanked out the steel spike that resided there. Kiz swung for his jaw, Riah charged with both meaty hands outstretched, and Asim jabbed the spike at anything that moved. Other patrons grabbed up drinks and various items of incrimination before scrambling out of the way. Youngsters outside crowded the doorway to watch, Bila shouted a premature request I make amends for any damage, and Asim informed the far reaches of Osterloh that I was to blame for everything.

Usually Riah and Kiz put down such rowdy feuds, but they were preoccupied—Riah clambering over a fallen table, Kiz clutching after her favorite toy. Asim kicked Riah’s gut just as the man lunged for his throat, then flung Kiz over a table and onto the lap of a patron who hadn’t moved quickly enough. No one got near enough to do Asim any harm. At least I’d judged his skill rightly.

Then Sijhal grabbed me around the waist and wrenched me to the floor. Stools and crockery crashed around us. After all, Bila had announced my sponsorship of the brawl.

“Damn you,” I gasped out when Sijhal hit the floor beside me, “Are you wanting to break my back again?”

“You want me to let him kill you?”

“You lost the trail on purpose.”

“Your boy isn’t a slave, Neb. If he wants to come home—”

Another crash overhead. Beer splattered across my face. I wiped it from my stinging eyes and ignored whatever else Sijhal had to say. What I needed to do was leave. It wouldn’t be long before the ruckus roused notice, and once the warriors caught whiff of it, they’d use the excuse to search pockets and wagons, and my silver—

“I’ll kill him!” Asim shouted, and all the cussing and scrapping stopped. Not knowing which “him” Asim meant, I chose to remain under the table. Then my drunkard called for me, and my friends couldn’t help but betray me with their glances. Under such circumstances, an obtrusive exit proved unlikely, so I used a nearby stool to get to my feet. Most everyone stared at me and my beer-damp head. Kiz was staring at her brother, and her brother was bent over clutching his crotch, probably too busy hurting to take heed of Asim’s fist buried in his hair. If Riah moved, though, he’d quickly notice the steel spike Asim kept pressed to the nape of his neck.

“Knew I couldn’t trust you,” Asim said to me. He was beginning to slur, softening his accent. “You can get me the next drink yourself.”

“Now, now, now,” Bila broke in, using his smoothest console-the-rabble tone. He’d refined it over the years, and had wisdom enough to stand behind the serving boards when he chastised his patrons. “There’s been a misunderstanding, is all. Any friend of Neb is welcome to—”

“I’m not his friend,” Asim said.

“—to share a drink with us. Kiz likes to flirt, is all, and there’s no harm in—”

Kiz’s turn. “He stole my poker!”

“—in you taking it for more than she meant.” Bila expertly ignored what he deemed unimportant. “As for Riah, he looks after his sister, is all, and I’m sure he’d be glad to shake hands on a truce, wouldn’t you, Riah?”

Riah grunted.

Asim merely announced, “Neb still owes me a drink.”

“Well, Neb.” Bila turned his bland expression on me. His long forefinger slid along his stubby nose, and his twitching eyebrows let me know I’d be paying double for his troubles. “I think you ought to show your guest a little hospitality.”

As if I hadn’t been doing just that since the drunkard puked over the side of my wagon. But arguing with Bila was generally frowned upon, so I found an unbroken beer mug on a nearby table. Sijhal offered me an earthen jug. A very faint smell of juniper—the scent of Bila’s strongest drink—rose as I filled that tall mug to the rim. If my Calligari drank it down, all the rest of us would have to do is make small talk until he fell over.

“Bring it here,” Asim snapped.

“I’m coming,” I snapped back, and picked my way over the debris. Between the drink and the fight, Asim’s cheeks and nose were brightly flushed, and his eyes had they rheumy look a drunkard gets when he starts feeling how sloshed he really is. “Want me to hold it to your lips, too?”

His expression turned downright foul, but he couldn’t get past the fact he’d have to relinquish either the steel spike or Riah’s head. He chose the latter, but not before he cracked Riah’s face against his knee. I winced as Riah crumpled further. Asim didn’t give him a glance. He leveled the spike at Kiz when she tensed—without looking, he held the point within a handspan of her eye—and took the mug from my hand. His grip on that was steady.

Two swallows, a pause, then two more, just as he’d guzzled my beer last night. He’d been at the business of drinking long enough to gain habits. He lowered the mug to draw a deep breath, looked away from me long enough to jab at Kiz until she retreated, then raised the mug again.

“Merciful gods,” someone whispered, “no man can drink like that.”

Asim gave the comment a wry grin. “Practice.”

“Well, now,” Bila said in the quiet. “Neb’s friend has his drink, Kiz and Riah are going to let him be, and we can all get back to business, can’t we?”

“Really.” Asim stole another sip. “All forgiven, all friends, just like that?”

“That’s how it works, friend.”

“I’m saving your life.”

“Well, then, a scuffle is small price to pay.”

Easy for Bila to say, since he’d named me the guarantor.

But Asim didn’t believe Bila. I saw skepticism in the cant of his head and the twitch of his lips, and my assessment of him turned upside down. A drunkard, yes. At the end of his means and utterly out of his depth, obviously. But though he’d acquired a drinking man’s comportment, he hadn’t lived a drinking man’s life long enough to learn its currency of rancor and reprieve, grudges and forgetfulness, and indulgence of another’s particular oddities.

My Calligari drunkard abruptly became interesting again. And since Sijhal had proclaimed himself wholly useless, I might be needing to hire a man with clear knowledge of Calligar and its tribes.

“Heed Bila,” I said to Asim. “Besides, your arm will fall off before Kiz gives up wanting her trinket back.”

“It’s not a trinket,” Kiz snarled.

“Be sweet, dear,” I said to her, then to Asim, “If you intend to keep us all hostage, you’ll need to send out for rope.”

The voicing of that unconsidered detail caused Asim to blink, and his rigid arm relaxed. Kiz didn’t wait a heartbeat before grabbing his wrist and twisting it. Swaying, Asim released the steel spike, and Kiz gingerly returned it to its rightful home.

“I’m done sharing drinks with you,” she said.

“Umm.”

I rolled my eyes. Whatever smarts and skills Asim had found, the drink had absconded with them again. “Take a seat, Asim. I’ll settle up with Bila.”

*** Part Three ***

Settle up indeed. By the time Bila tallied the breakage and the spillage, and added an arbitrary number to cover the loss of Riah’s services for the day, I had enough credit on his books to buy two rounds of flatbread and a smear of soft cheese for each one.

So much for a decent breakfast.

Bread and cheese in hand, I walked around the edge of the common room, denying the youngsters mopping the floor the chance to trip me for giggles. I paused in the doorway—casually, as if I were no more concerned about my wagon than any other day—and spied Bit right where I’d left him. The boy hunched over, elbows on knees and chin on fists, pouting.

“I didn’t move,” Bit told me. “And I missed the whole thing.”

I chuckled. “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”

“That’s not what Lip told me.”

“Lip flaps her mouth too much, you know that.” I glanced up and down the lane. More people were about now, so I counted it fortunate Asim had performed his little outburst when he had. No one had been near enough to assume the ruckus was more than the Mourner’s usual jovial goings-on. I promised Bit I’d be out shortly, then made my way to the table where Asim sat alone.

The Calligari’s hand was cupped limply around the mug I’d given him, and the leg that had bounced incessantly during the ride through town was slung over another stool, blessedly still. His chin rested on his chest, but he tilted his head so he could watch the room. Pitiful it was, seeing a man so edgy he couldn’t enjoy a good sloshing.

I stood over him, waiting. When the pissant didn’t budge, I accidentally knocked his leg from the stool and claimed the seat for myself.

Asim groaned. “I about ruined it, eh?”

“It was a very near thing.” I put one of the bread-and-cheese folds in front of him. “And if you intended that to be a private comment, you failed miserably. Even Bila heard you, and he’s still behind the boards.”

“He didn’t hear me.”

“Yes, he did.”

“No he—”

“Everyone heard you,” Kiz said from her usual post by the door. Bila followed up with, “But we all have our own business, don’t we?” and the room’s chatter resumed at the command.

Asim looked around the Mourner’s—no one but Kiz looked at him, and her look wasn’t very sociable—then he hunched over the table. “I’m very drunk.”

Such enlightenment he bestowed. “Don’t talk. Eat.”

“Not hungry.”

“Eat or you’ll puke. What a waste that would be.”

After an unmentionable grumble, he ate, washing down each of three bites with a sip or two. I was astonished he could still function at all. Tossing back two or three gulps of Bila’s best was enough to make most folks quite merry or utterly despondent, depending upon their nature. Five or six set most to slobbering. But Asim still twitched when a patron moved through the common room, though that twitch grew more belated as time crawled on. At last, lifting the mug became too arduous an undertaking, and he propped his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he told the table. “I didn’t mean it to happen, the things I did. I didn’t do them to be mean. I mean, I did, but I didn’t mean to.”

Lustrous day, that I found myself playing nursemaid to a nasty drunk turned maudlin and lacking a tolerable vocabulary.

“Now, don’t fret,” I said. If it worked for Bila, why shouldn’t it work for me? “Time to head home.”

He pressed his hands over his eyes. “Don’t send me home, Neb, they’ll kill me.”

Thankfully, he’d taken to whispering, and no one overheard him. I gave his arm a cautious tap, and leaned forward when he peeked through his fingers. “My home, Asim. Over the hill.”

“Where the junipers are…”

Here I had a man unable to string together two sentences in a row, but damned all if he’d forget about my junipers. I stood and tugged his sleeve—the cloth was distastefully slick—and was relieved when he pushed to his feet.

“Don’t run away,” he mumbled.

“Oh, of course not.”

“Don’t let me pass out too soon.”

“I won’t.” At least, not until I got him in the wagon. But before we could leave, a thin and crooked figure lurched into the doorway.

“I made it!” Plegar announced, hands gripping either side of the doorjamb, eyes narrowed beneath a frizzle of gray hair. “Those damned warriors blocked the whole damned street, but I fought my way through the whole damned lot!”

Asim jolted from his stupor, hurled himself against the wall, and armed himself with one of the pottery shards yet lying on the floor. Rather, he attempted such a feat, but ended up on his ass beside Kiz’s table with a flagon’s curved handle in his fist.

“There are no warriors out there,” I told Asim.

“Are too!” Plegar shouted. “Damned liars, the lot of you. Lazy, filthy, craven liars! You know it, Bila, tell them!”

Bila started with his well-now and there-there, and Plegar tottered to the boards to get his usual breakfast of fried sausage and reassurances. Asim sat on the floor, wide-eyed and panting, clutching his pathetic weapon. I heaved a sigh, made note to keep better track of my luck (I must have misplaced it sometime yesterday), and propped my elbow on the table so I could bend closer to Asim.

“There are. No. Warriors.”

“He said there were,” Asim said in a rush.

“No, there aren’t.”

“But he said–”

“No,” Kiz broke in, and patted the top of his head. She’d never been one to hold a grudge for long. Riah did that for her. “Plegar fights his way here every morning. At least he wore his pants today.”

Asim scrunched up his face. “He’s crazy?”

“No more than you are, I’d guess.”

Shrewd as her assessment was, I didn’t care to delve into the matter. “Asim, would you mind getting up before my back locks in this position?”

After three attempts and another fall, Asim lurched to his feet. He made some comment about not tying me up again, which I’m sure Kiz found amusing, but I managed to get him out of the Mourner’s before he said anything else humiliating.

“You’re done, Bit,” I said to the youngster, and he expressed his relief in words unseemly for a boy addressing his elder. He swung down from the wagon, then looked over my Calligari, who was still navigating his way down the two steps from the door.

“Lip was telling tales,” Bit muttered. “He couldn’t have put down Kiz and Riah all by himself.”

“Did to!” came a girl’s shrill reply. Lip scampered from the shop across the lane, where her mother spent far too many hours spinning thread finer than she could ever afford herself. Lip’s worn smock barely covered her knees. She must have grown a handspan in the last month. I thought of my silver, and figured I could spare a few coins again this year.

Lip skidded to a halt in front of Bit and slicked back the strands of hair sticking to a smear of carob on her cheek. She wasn’t the least bit daunted by the fact her head barely reached his chest. “He grabbed Kiz’s poker—whoosh! Kicked Riah in the eggs—bam! Threw a stool at Uki—smash! Then got hold of—”

“That’s enough, Lip,” I said. Much more, and the warrior leaning unobtrusively in the shadows down the street would think it his duty to chat with us. “Your mother wouldn’t be pleased to hear you chittering about other people’s affairs.”

“I already told her”—she spread her arms wide—”the whole thing, and she said it was very interesting.”

If I didn’t find my luck soon, “interesting” would be my ruin. I took hold of Asim’s arm and guided him to the wagon wheel. He hitched himself up, then jumped back down.

“But you’re out of beer, Neb.”

“You didn’t like my beer anyway.”

“I’ll need it later, before it’s too late again. I could feel them coming, Neb. If just one of them gets out—”

“Get in the wagon before every warrior in Entibar shows up to take turns pulling off your fingers and shoving them up your—”

“I’m not leaving without it!”

I considered my knife, then the warrior yet standing in the shadows as if everyone didn’t already know he was there, then the silver that mustn’t be discovered. “Bit, tell Bila to fill me a jug.”

“Aw, Neb, I’m no fetch-boy.”

“Bit. Now.”

Just as that sulky brat trotted into the Mourner’s, and the stubborn souse pulled himself up the wagon wheel again, a new voice spoke up behind me.

“Trouble, Neb?”

Ah, so that warrior simply couldn’t resist his own curiosity. I turned to face Sen Babak. Not surprising he’d been the one watching me. He must sniff every back alley in search of wrongdoing weighty enough to fling him to glory.

“No trouble, Sen Babak. My hired man enjoyed a little too much drink, and needs to sleep it off.”

Babak crossed his arms. “Calligari, I heard. And short-tempered.”

I shot a glare at Lip. The little ankle-snapper grinned back. The carob smear on her cheek, I belatedly deduced, was evidence of the reward Babak had given her for an “interesting” tale.

“Just drunk,” I said. “As soon as Bila sends out–”

“Can’t do it,” Bit called from the Mourner’s doorway. “Bila says he wants coin ’cause your credit’s used up.”

“Tell Bila,” I shouted back, “he’ll have the coin tomorrow.”

Bit tossed my answer over his shoulder, then gave me Bila’s reply. “He’s having none of that, Neb.”

“You’ve coin,” Asim said.

“No, I don’t. Shut up.” Let him—please, gods!—have the modicum of clarity to realize I must not have that much coin, not in front of Sen Babak.

But Asim was full drunk, and a complete imbecile. He pulled the sack from under the wagon bench, then fumbled it. All my silver spilled over the wagon’s edge and onto the dirt.

People scrambled, snatched, and disappeared into the crowd despite my observation that thievery was a crime. I tried to grab the coins myself, but Babak pulled me back and sneered. “You going to tell me that’s yours, Neb?”

Damn that snooping warrior, he knew there’d be an “interesting” tale there. Before I could conjure up an answer, the wagon creaked and Asim vaulted to the ground, and all my frustration came out in an explosive curse. My silver and my plans for it—gone because the dunghead Calligari counted nothing so important as staying drunk. And now he wanted to brawl in the street.

Fists and boots and elbows and knees all went flying in a flurry of screams and curses. Asim’s tussle in the Mourner’s Inn had been an evening stroll in comparison. He crouched and kicked, spun and punched, twisted a woman’s wrist until she dropped a handful of coins, tripped a youngster who tried to flee with his prize, rammed his boot into the backside of a man bent over to collect what others had missed. My donkeys minced and brayed and yanked at their harnesses as the mayhem played out near their hooves.

It took the great and glorious Sen Babak that long to quit gaping and remember he was supposed to maintain the peace. By the time he pushed into the fray, other warriors had come running. With a nod to fairness, I’ll note Asim held his own against three warriors. But when the fourth showed up, Asim couldn’t keep up. One got in a solid rap on his skull, and Asim dropped like a dead man. I knew from experience it’d take more than that to kill him. The warriors prudently kicked his unresponsive body a few times.

“Enough,” said the oldest and broadest warrior. SenDen Ramazan had lived in Entibar nigh twenty years, all of them as commander. His gaze easily found mine—everyone else had ducked indoors, the cowards—and he took his time dusting off his hands. I needed to use the privy again.

“I’ll escort you home, Neb,” Ramazan said, “since your hired man will be staying in town.”

I cleared my throat to find my voice. “Thank you, SenDen, but there’s no need for the inconvenience.”

To answer, Ramazan barked out orders to clear the street, collect the evidence and what silver could still be found, and see to it the Calligari lived. Then he climbed onto my wagon and commanded me, with a curl of his fingers, to join him. Truly, I would have preferred Asim’s company.

My hands trembled as badly as Asim’s had when I settled on the wagon bench and took up the reins. I tried not to sorrowfully stare at the scattered silver that was even now being plucked up by warriors. Kiz, leaning in the Mourner’s doorway, gave me a sympathetic glance before backing into the shadows. No one else bid me farewell. Asim certainly couldn’t, sprawled on the dirt as he was. By the time I got the donkeys to heed the reins, a pair of warriors were arguing about who’d have to lug him away. Babak, I was pleased to see, sat beneath the Mourner’s awning with a rag pressed to his bloody lip.

“Serves you right!” Plegar nattered to the wounded man. He must have visited the privy recently, for his trousers drooped around his knees. “Addled brains, the whole damn lot of you, putting that warrior down. Mark me, you’ll be wanting him back when they come hunting for you. If I was him, I’d leave you to die in your own piss, the whole damned lot of you. Cravens!

And thus Plegar delivered his prophecy to Entibar.

*** Part Four ***

The ride from the Mourner’s was quiet, I occupied with keeping breakfast in my stomach, and Ramazan engrossed with cleaning his fingernails. No doubt he assumed I’d be compelled to fill the silence with confessions. Actually, I much appreciated his decision to forgo an interrogation. It gave me a chance to weigh my options, consider explanations, create reasonable rationales for pieces of evidence. After all, once Ramazan strutted into my home, he’d see cause for uncomfortable inquiries. Truth would serve me well, were it not for the abundance of silver that had appeared in my wagon.

My back ached even more, grieving such a loss.

At last we came to the gatehouse. Tirsala had no greeting for me this time, but stood stiff and alert when she spied Ramazan beside me. The SenDen’s fondness for discipline was well-known because the warriors griped about it when they thought no one else would hear.

“Pull the wagon around,” Ramazan said lightly, and pointed to the stableyard beside the gatehouse. My stomach wriggled, but I did what I was told. I’d scarcely set the wagon brake when a gaggle of children scampered from the manor across the lane and began climbing the wheels. I gnawed the inside of my cheek. A person in my position did not tell the SenDen’s children to scat unless said person wanted a comprehensive tour of the gatehouse cells.

“Come inside,” he said to me as he vaulted from the wagon and landed with nary a stumble. “Saris always sends over breakfast enough for three or four.”

“But… my goods…”

“They’ll be fine.”

He scooped up his youngest, a girl of six, and tossed her onto my goatswool. Her squeal of delight was soon echoed by three siblings as they enjoyed bouncing on the soft sacks. Yes, my goods would be just fine under their watch. I suppose I should be grateful that Saris did a marginally good job of keeping her children free of lice.

At least Ramazan’s eldest boy wasn’t in sight. Marek would likely wait until the younger children grew bored enough to leave, then filch a fire-starting lens to test the combustibility of wool. In the past year, the miscreant had set a dozen fires, started a double handful of brawls, swiped four jugs of wine, scrawled obscenities on the gate about a girl who’d snubbed him, tied a snapping lizard to a horse’s tail and set the pair loose in town, and secretly mixed paprika into the apothecary’s medicinal eye washes.

“Neb,” Ramazan called from the archway leading to the gatehouse. Dismissing the calculations of how much more the morning was going to cost me, I followed him into the narrow and shaded corridor, then through the door he held open for me.

The gatehouse, to put it delicately, smelled well-occupied. A pair of boots rested on the windowsill, where the gentle breeze could carry the matchless aroma into the square room. All manner of equine and warrior accoutrements hung from the walls, blankets and cloaks and whatnot were rumpled in the corners, and a tray of what looked to be last night’s uneaten snacks rested on the bottom step leading up to the cells. Discipline, it seemed, was malleable when it came to neatness.

I slowed a bit when Ramazan headed toward the stairs, then stopped completely when he passed the stairs and pushed open the flimsy door tucked beneath them. There was no way for me to make a polite departure, but I’d not walk willingly into confinement.

“Privacy,” he said, gesturing through the doorway.

I folded my hands and glanced about the gatehouse. “Right here will do nicely.”

“Until your hired man is brought in.”

“Our conversation needn’t be long, nor enjoyed right now. Perhaps this evening would be better.”

Ramazan’s cheek twitched. “Come in, Neb.”

With a shrug and a sigh, I walked into Ramazan’s little private domain. The office was a mere closet of a room with a slanted ceiling. Stacks of bound journals were shoved against the shortest wall, and a stout table jutted from the tallest. At least it smelled good in there, where the scent of Saris’s cooking mingled with the breeze through the slit window that offered a view of Tirsala’s post.

Ramazan pointed to a stool with the same authority he’d shown on the street. I sat. He settled into the chair across from me and surveyed the platter of scrambled eggs, crumbled sausage, and fig-smeared bread crisps atop his desk.

“It’s cold,” he said lightly, poking the eggs with a spoon, “but you’re welcome to enjoy my wife’s cooking.”

When a warrior extended such an invitation, one accepted, and merrily. Since he’d claimed the spoon, I used one of the larger crisps to scoop up some sausage. The pepper zest came as a satisfying sting. Though I’d never say so to Bila’s face, Saris’s fare surpassed his.

“Interesting man you hired,” Ramazan said after his first mouthful. “If he’s ‘slow and clumsy,’ gods forefend I meet the fighter you’d deem quick and agile.”

“My astonishment transcends words,” I said honestly.

“No doubt that silver was his.”

Not a question, but a statement spoken with the precision people use when they want you to know they’re lying for your benefit.

“I also assume,” he added, “the Calligari will deny it.”

Yes, there was that small point.

Ramazan nodded at my silence. “Best I put it in the charity coffers, wouldn’t you agree?”

I weighed the option of claiming ownership—thereby requiring I explain what activities brought me good fortune—against agreeing with the SenDen—thereby losing it all. I smoothed the scowl from my face. At least some of the silver would make its way to hands I wanted to place it in. “Yes, SenDen. The best end for an unfortunate morn.”

“Maybe not so unfortunate after all. I’ve been meaning to chat with you.”

That boded…not well.

Ramazan offered me another crisp. “How invested are you in keeping that Calligari?”

“Um.” I took the crisp and stared at its seedy fig topping. Disheartening, to know the SenDen’s rapt attention could reduce my vocabulary to Asim’s quality. “He’s met his obligations to me, and I to him. But I hesitate to turn him loose so far from home.”

“We’re at peace with Calligar.”

“Ah. And I’m certain your attention to him is utterly unremarkable.”

“Ah.” His turn to think and chew. A muffled conversation came from the gatehouse room, followed by the tromping of boots upstairs. Ramazan’s gaze followed the noise across the ceiling until there came a thump and a thud. Then he nodded and looked back at me as the tromping retreated. “We’ll let him sleep it off. You can retrieve him in the morning.”

I waited for the conditions, but he merely bent his head to the business of eating. I nearly thanked him before pausing to consider whether I wanted Ramazan to know me grateful. Then I wondered when I’d stopped seeking the best moment to turn Asim in. The why was simple: Asim could get closer to my missing son that Sijhal ever had.

“You have my thanks, SenDen. I’ll ensure you have Asim’s as well.”

Ramazan gave me a keen stare. “You’ll be taking him back to Calligar, of course.”

“Oh, of course.”

“You’ll be wanting to set out first thing in the morning.”

I shook my head, slowly, respectfully. “I have goods to sell before I could–”

“Surely you’ve a friend who could make the transaction for you.”

For a cut of the profits. “I’ve no way to re-supply until the goods sell.”

“Good thing there’s a bit of silver in the coffers, eh?”

I determined I’d like Ramazan much better if circumstances had placed us on the same side of the matter. He wanted the Calligari out of his hands, he wanted someone else to do it, and at someone else’s expense. Well, if I was going to take care of those things for him, he could take care of a thing or two for me.

“Fine, then,” I said. “But I’m not taking him anywhere unless he’s bound and gagged before he’s dumped in my wagon. And I’m not riding all the way to Jendayi and back without the apothecary’s blessing.”

“I’ll procure your medicinal myself this afternoon,” he said without pause, proof he had indeed anticipated our conversation, and learned the best means to bribe me. Odd, since no one but I had known I’d be bringing a Calligari into town. The question was for what purpose Ramazan had originally made his inquires, and I didn’t want to know that answer until my luck dragged its sorry self home.

“Done.” I stood to leave. “I’d best get my donkeys to stable since they’ll find no rest tomorrow.”

“One more thing, Neb.”

I didn’t want to know that one more thing. “I believe we’re even, SenDen.”

“I wouldn’t sleep well, knowing I sent you on this errand alone.”

“I’ve done just fine on my own for—”

“Marek will go with you.”

“Your son?”

“Your silver?”

“No!”

“Yes.”

I experienced the utter lack of rhetorical skill Asim must have suffered during our conversations. It was not an uplifting moment. I decided to try a strategy Asim had not—honesty—and sank back into the chair.

“You’d be putting him in danger, SenDen. The Calligari is not a well man.”

“He’ll be tied up, as you said.”

“He threatened to kill me. You’ll entrust your son to his company?”

“To you, Neb. I trust you will do right by me.”

“SenDen, look at me. I’d be no match for that drunkard if he sought to do Marek harm.”

“Are you saying my son can’t fend for himself?”

“No, no, no! I simply meant—”

“Because here’s the way I could put the morning together, were I so inclined.” He pushed aside what remained of breakfast, leaned forward, then folded his hands atop the table. “A trader by the name of Nebidiah n’Chara has a well-known history of dealing with Calligari merchants.”

“I’m not the only such trader!”

“Unlike other such traders, Neb has never run afoul of Calligari officials, never been investigated, never been detained at the border.”

That’s because I knew better than most how to properly present a bribe. But how did Ramazan— “Who told you I never—”

“And for seven years, Neb has employed a man known to spend inordinate months in Calligar, performing no tangible service before returning to Osterloh empty-handed.”

“Whatever Sijhal told you—”

“And today,” Ramazan said, voice raised to let me know silence was wisest, “Neb comes into town quite early in the day, bringing a Calligari warrior whom he immediately takes to a meeting with the same man who spends so much time in Calligar. No doubt Neb expected to ride from town with his payment for services rendered quite safe, and no more thought given to the Calligari spy he’d smuggled across the border.”

My stomach went from rolling to falling, and my heart moved from a jig to a gallop. “You’re naming me a… a…”

“Traitor.”

I nearly lost control of my bowels. Treachery demanded execution, and execution took four days. “You know I’m not,” I rasped.

At least he had decency enough to look away with a smidgen of guilt for making such a threat. I deeply doubted, however, a smidgeon would cost him to lose sleep. If that were so, he’d have suffered years of insomnia, considering the number of times he’d played deaf and blind and stupid in order to maintain the illusion that Marek was simply an energetic lad given to bouts of harmless mischief.

Pity I wasn’t a warrior, able to butcher Asim for bringing the SenDen’s attention down on me. Maybe I’d just slit his throat once we were out of sight of Entibar. Maybe I’d take along some of Bila’s best, soak him to the skin, then let Marek play with the fire lens awhile. The vision gave me courage enough to uncurl my rigid fists and lay my sweaty palms on the table.

“Perhaps,” I said, “I may reconsider the opportunity you were about to grant me.”

“You’re good at keeping secrets.”

“Because I’m choosy about what secrets I take in.”

Ramazan snorted, then chuckled, then shook a finger at me. “I knew you were the right one for this, Neb.”

Splendid. Being the right one for any warrior’s task was likely an easy way to stumble into a grave.

“Marek needs to be out of Entibar.” He tried to keep his tone light, but his voice strained. “He’s a good young man, but there simply isn’t a place for him here, not until he proves himself. Away from me. In a place where I’m not there to watch over him.”

“With a man no one would suspect you trust as witness.”

His grin twitched, but he had virtue enough to acknowledge the truth with a nod. “You’ll collect your Calligari in the morn, just as we agreed. Marek will meet up with you between here and the watchtower. In a few days, the two of you will come back, and you’ll spend the afternoon telling your friends at the Mourner’s Inn how glad you were to have an able fighter along.”

Ramazan thought it would be that simple. But no one I knew would believe me glad to have Marek along, and my face would explode if I named the boy an able fighter without laughing. Yet I’d have to agree if wanted to walk out of the gatehouse rather than join Asim in the upstairs cell. I’d already seen that man awaken without drink at hand. Tortuous execution aside, the prospect of facing it again was motivation enough to lie with greater conviction than ever before.

“SenDen, I would be honored to do you such a service.”

“Of course.” He pulled his breakfast tray closer and resumed picking at the eggs. “Go home, Neb. If you’re not here at tomorrow’s dawn, be assured I’ll take personal interest in your future affairs.”

***

 

Actively Wondering

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